My recent trip to the Azores was a bucket list trip many years in the making. Ever since I first laid eyes on a scenic shot of the resplendent landscape of the Azores, I knew I would need to see it for myself! Now finally I can say that I have. And it did not disappoint! But naturally, as it always seems to happen, I found myself marking the Azores off of my bucket list and then, with another stroke of the pen, adding several more to the list. I visited Sao Miguel but now feel a strong urge to see the other Azorean islands as well as many places on the mainland that I heard so much about while I was there. But that’s a trip for another day. Today I want to share with you my Sao Miguel Travel Guide because it really is a wonderful intro to the Azores. It’s the most accessible island and offers all the best features of what you’ll find on this remote archipelago.
Sao Miguel Travel Guide
When To Go
Naturally I would have to say that when I visited the Azores it was a wonderful time to go. In fact, I was there for the Walk & Talk Azores Art Festival, which was really wonderful and I would recommend syncing your trip up with Walk & Talk if you can.
The festival takes place during the summer, which is a nice time to be there, as it’s warm enough to enjoy being outdoors. The Azores are pretty far north, situated off the coast of Portugal, so it’s not the kind of place you would go for a tropical winter getaway. When it’s nice weather in mainland Europe, it’s a good time to be in the Azores. But you should still bear in mind that the weather is pretty unpredictable because of its location out in the ocean, and you’re apt to get a range of weather in the span of a day.
The Azores also hosts a really cool music festival called Tremor, during April, which is another great time to visit. And the Azores is quite a religious place so you may be interested to attend one of their biggest and most vibrant religious festivals. On the fifth Sunday after Easter, the people of Sao Miguel celebrate the Festival of the Christ of Miracles with music and parades and lots of fanfare.
How To Get There
Conveniently, the Ponta Delgada airport on Sao Miguel island is the international airport for the Azores, so it’s the easiest island to get to. Both Azores Airlines and Air Portugal service the Azores through Sao Miguel. And you may be lucky like I was because there is a direct flight between Boston and Ponta Delgada that takes just about 4-5 hours. Once you land, there isn’t much by way of public transit on the island so you’ll need either a rental car or a taxi ride to get into town. The car rentals are pretty affordable, and will be very useful in exploring the island so I would recommend it.
Where To Stay
I’m happy to report that there has not been any invasion of international mega-hotel chains to Sao Miguel. The island is more quiet and quaint than all that. So when you stay here, consider someplace that really lets you embrace the island’s history and culture.
There are a lot of great airbnb rentals on Sao Miguel, which can help you really feel like a local in no time. Use my link to get a discount off your first rental, and search for Sao Miguel Island Portugal on the airbnb homepage. You can keep your budget travel even cheaper by staying at a hostel. There are some really unique, independently-run hostels on the island. My favorites are Out of the Blue and The Nook Hostel.
Pico de Refugio, on the north side of the island, is a glowing example of rural tourism. This property has followed the changing tides of the island’s industries, having once been a tea farm, an orange farm, a sugar cane plantation, and a farm for pashtel, the flower used in dyes. Now they host artists in residence who create artwork inspired by the landscapes here, and tourists who are looking for a little something unique on their travels.
Old architecture and rolling fields at Pico de Refugio.
What To See
There are so many beautiful things to see in Sao Miguel that I don’t know if you’ll even have the time in your itinerary to get to them all! Seriously you could go just about anywhere in the Azores and it’ll be breathtakingly beautiful. But here are a few spots to be sure to hit while you’re visiting.
– Lago das Sete Cidades is the beautiful set of dual-lakes, one greenish and one blueish, that you have surely seen pictures of. It’s one of the most photographed spots on the island, and with good reason. When I went there, I would stop and take photos, then walk another step and take more photos, mouth agape, while marveling at what stood before me. It’s pretty easy to drive up there from Ponta Delgada, just follow the road signs for Sete Cidades along the scenic route lined with hydrangea bushes.
– Hotel Mont Palace is a now-deserted hotel that was optimistically built many years ago to offer overnight guests an exclusive view overlooking Sete Cidades. Only problem is that its up on top of a volcano so it was hard to access before the roads were later well-paved. That and the unpredictable weather I told you about, made it a less-than-desirable destination. Now it’s abandoned and pretty creepy actually. Wander through the remains (during daylight only!) and imagine what once was. (Psst, it reminds me of what the hotel in this movie could become, what do you think?)
– Pico da Vara is the highest point on the island, so if you’re headed to the Azores for the abundance of hiking trails, this has got to make your list! Sitting high up in the clouds at 3619’, Pico da Vara rewards you with magnificent views after your hike. Another great hiking spot you should check out is Faial da Terra. Just make sure you check the weather for the whole day before you make the trek up there!
– Islet of Vila Franca do Campo is this incredible watering hole in the rock formation that’s right off the coast of Sao Miguel. There’s a boat from Tagarete to take you over there but only 400 people are allowed over each day (and yes, they always sell out!), so get there early if you want to go for a swim in this peaceful little islet. And trust me, you do…it’ll give you total bragging rights on Instagram!
– Praia de Santa Barbara is one of the largest stretches of beach, covering a full kilometer of oceanfront! But besides the opportunity to lounge on the beach, this is actually an internationally recognized surfing spot. With massive waves crashing in from the ocean, surfers take to the waves here at Santa Barbara beach, which has also hosted the WSP World Tour.
What To Do
– I mentioned a couple of great hiking trails above but truly there are at least 20 hiking trails just here on the island of Sao Miguel. If you love the outdoors, you will love Sao Miguel. Pack your hiking boots and take to the trails. Some trails I would recommend include Salto do Prego, Salto do Cabrito, and Sanguinho!
– Coming from Boston, I felt a hint of familiar ground when I saw the signs for whale watching tours. In fact, the Azoreans who migrated to Boston years ago brought with them the whaling industry, which created a longstanding relationship between our regions. Now that whaling is an extinct industry, we have taken to whale watching to admire the animals our ancestors once hunted. And actually I’ll admit that you’re bound to see more whales in the Azores than you are in Boston!
– Paragliding is no casual sport, but if you’re a trained paraglider, you will love it here in the Azores. There are launch points from atop mountains and volcanoes around the island, which offer paragliders an absolutely unparalleled view on their flight over the landscape. To arrange your private flight, contact the local paragliding club in Sao Miguel.
– Because of the Azores’ volcanic origins, canyoning is quite a popular sport around here. Take a tour to go exploring around the canyons, and the tour provider will equip you with everything you need. It’s like an adult-sized playgym! Anyone who loves the outdoors will have a blast here on Sao Miguel.
– The only remaining tea plantation in Europe can be found here on Sao Miguel island. Gorreana is a tea plantation that has survived despite all odds, and continues to churn out high-quality tea from this tiny remote island. Plan a visit to the plantation and see about Europe’s oldest tea production for yourself!
– Inside the Parque Terra Nostra is a thermal hot spring. It’s an absolutely lovely place to relax, like nature’s Jacuzzi. The water is a bit brown-ish so don’t wear a swimsuit you love as it may get stained. But a swim in the thermal bath is totally worth it for the healing power of the waters and the relaxing effect it will have on your mind and body. This is the perfect end to a nice walk around the extensive grounds of the Terra Nostra Park.
– I don’t always promote cliffjumping, but in this case it’s a must! There are spots along the shore where people will go jumping into the ocean waters, and where it’s safe you’re sure to find others doing the same. In one spot, Ponta da Ferraria, the thermal baths spill out into the ocean and the waters mix. It is a refreshing mix of the warm thermal waters and the cool ocean currents. This spot has been set up with ropes to hang on to as you swim in the ocean waters. It’s wonderful, I highly recommend it!
What To Eat
There are some tasty foods, especially pastries, that come from Portugal, and in fact there are some specialties that come right from Sao Miguel. Here are the local eats you should be sure to taste while you’re here:
– Pastel de Nata – It’s like a egg custard pastry that is famous in Lisbon. The pastel de nata looks like a little pastry cup filled with egg crème and burnt on top. When they’re fresh out of the oven they are literally irresistible.
– Queijadas de Vila Franca – These are like the Azorean counterpart to the pastel de nata, except they are topped with powdered sugar! They were historically baked by nuns in convents, and they’re a delicious but super-sweet treat.
– Pineapple – As fresh and sweet and juicy as you could ever hope a pineapple to be, this fruit just absolutely thrives on the island. Get yourself a helping of pineapple when you’re in Sao Miguel!
– Bolo Levedo – This Portugese sweet bread is as ubiquitous as white bread is here in America. They use bolo levedo for toast, for sandwiches, and for snacking. It’s fresh and delicious and a total staple!
– Sao Jorge Cheese – This cheese actually comes from the island of Sao Jorge, not Sao Miguel, but it’s available on all of the Azores islands. It’s a hard, aged cheese, and it’s often served in slices on a bolo levedo!
– Cracas – This is a kind of seafood, which even I couldn’t get behind. It looks like a hunk of coral was grabbed out of the ocean, then it’s boiled in sea water, and you use a tiny fork to pull a small piece of meat out. I think this may be an acquired taste but my Portugese friends absolutely love it!
Need To Know
There are some considerations to keep in mind because of the island’s remote nature and quiet pace of life. For one thing, every business is closed on Sunday. Really though, you should pick up some food on Saturday or you won’t be able to eat on Sunday. But the small businesses are absolutely charming and should be embraced. You should also carry cash as many transactions, like coffee breaks, are inexpensive and cash-only. Also note that tipping is not expected here (I’m looking at you, Americans!).
I said before, the public transportation here is quite rubbish so you should rent a car to get around the island. It’ll be about 30€ per day, and is essential for seeing the island. The road signs are pretty good, so if you set out with an idea of where you’d like to go you can just follow the signs to navigate there.
The crime level on Sao Miguel island is pretty low and it’s overall a very safe place. But you should still exercise good judgment and basic precautions to avoid being the victim of petty crime.
And lastly, it bears repeating that the weather is unpredictable. Because the Azores are so far out into the ocean, there are weather patterns moving in and out throughout the day and some storm systems can get trapped over the island by the mountains. Many days it will be overcast and cloudy but then it may clear up and be a perfectly lovely afternoon. Don’t let the weather deter you, the island is still beautiful!